American Dipper

An American Dipper is a somewhat plain bird on the outside, but it can do some amazing things.

A small songbird popped out of the rushing waters at Big Springs in Island Park. It was rather plain with a slightly brown head, gray body and clownishly short tail. Each time it blinked I saw a flash from white eyelid feathers. I recognized it immediately though as it sat preening on a rock near the water and unconsciously dipping up and down like it was doing deep knee bends. It was an American Dipper, so named because it is a resident of the Western US, Canada and south to Central America and has its characteristic dipping behavior.

Over 150 years ago, John James Audubon drew this bird in one of his famous illustrations. Called plate 370, he called this bird, American Water Ouzel, Cinclus americanus. The water ouzel name has since faded in favor of American Dipper and even the scientific name has changed to Cinclus mexicanus, despite the fact that 80 percent of the dippers live in the USA.

This curious bird breaks the norms of most songbirds. First, dippers (there is a European counterpart) are the only songbirds to make a living under water. They swim but also walk on the bottom of fast-moving mountain streams and rivers while they look for their prey, aquatic insects. Dippers aren’t particularly social, spending much of the year alone. They also do not migrate unless they need to find ice-free waters, but even then, they don’t move farther than necessary.

Dippers have several modifications that allow them a lifestyle on the bottom of cold mountain streams. First, they sport a nictitating membrane, a transparent horizontal-moving eyelid that protects the eye while still allowing the bird to see under water. In addition, the dipper has more natural oils in the feathers than other songbirds. This helps the feathers to shed water. Third, compared to most songbirds, dippers have a thicker layer of feathers, again as protection against the cold water they spend so much time in. Finally, dippers have a lower metabolism and higher oxygen carrying capacity in their blood cells to cope with winter and cold water.

Unlike other songbirds, but similar to ducks, the American Dipper molts wing and tail feathers all at once late in the summer. During this time, the birds are flightless.

 American Dippers are often considered indicators of habitat quality in streams and rivers. They prefer clear unpolluted water. When water becomes polluted with silt or chemicals, dippers often seek out other areas. This may be in part because aquatic insects, their primary food, are less abundant in polluted water.

There is one last thing about American Dippers. Many of us remember Susan Boyle’s 2009 performance on Britain’s Got Talent. A frumpy school-marm looking 47-year-old woman took the stage and the crowd was almost jeering. But when she opened her mouth, the jeers turned to joy as the air resonated with her rendition of, I Dreamed A Dream, from Les Miserables. The American dipper, plain and ordinary looking, also has a surprise for anyone lucky enough to hear it sing. Its song is vibrant, melodic and beautifully complex. Males and females both sing, and unlike most songbirds, do so all year. The dipper is a reminder that it is not what is outside, but rather, what is on the inside and what music we make with what we have that counts. That is the light that we must let shine.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho